Robert Barnett is a former D.C. Public Schools teacher.
It has now been almost three months since we learned that record graduation rates in D.C. Public Schools were not the groundbreaking success that city officials, education reformers nationwide and even President Barack Obama made them out to be. Without a doubt, the city’s schools produce some amazing young people. As a former DCPS math teacher, I’ve encountered many of them.
Yet these are the facts: One in three of the DCPS’s 2017 graduates received diplomas in violation of policy. And only 1 in 7 DCPS high school students was deemed proficient in math on the most recent standardized tests. This data squares with my own experience: DCPS has passed hundreds of students who are not adequately prepared for college or careers.
Since the news broke, school and city officials have promised accountability. Then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson’s primary response was to create an Office of Integrity, whose mission will be to ensure that all schools comply with DCPS policy. Rules are rules, and they will be followed.
These responses may help repair the DCPS’s reputation and possibly restore the credibility of its diplomas in 2018 and beyond. But in the rush to maintain the school system’s integrity, it’s worth asking: Will strict adherence to these policies really do anything for the students the system is meant to serve?
I know firsthand the challenges our schools face, and I know that simply punishing students for missing class without deeper systemic reforms won’t do much to help educate our young people. The courageous teachers at Ballou High School, who blew this scandal wide open, noted two pervasive problems: Students were graduating despite chronic absences, and some of these graduates didn’t know how to read. I taught students like these: smart, well-meaning kids who entered my classroom many years behind. They had missed important concepts at some point in their educational careers and, despite years of testing that revealed these gaps, been passed along with their age peers. Students like these — who, according to test scores, make up the vast majority of DCPS — can come to class every day, work hard and still not reach proficiency. They just aren’t prepared to. Small wonder so many miss school.
Each year, the DCPS spends millions assessing its students and hundreds of millions more trying to deliver content to students who are not ready for it. The goal has been that each student graduates by the age of 18 or so, proficiency be damned — provided, of course, that the student has not missed too many days of class. Recent reforms make clear that truant students will no longer be allowed to graduate. But what will they do to make sure that the students who do graduate have the skills they need?
Rather than focusing on compliance among its schools, DCPS should emphasize real mastery on the part of its students — and support teachers in fostering it. DCPS should embrace so-called competency-based learning, which allows students to learn at their own paces and ensures that each student masters each prerequisite skill through appropriately challenging content before moving on to more advanced material. Credit- and unit-recovery courses, formerly an easy-to-exploit means of getting students the credits they need to graduate, should become rigorous yet flexible modules that help students achieve authentic understanding — and don’t deliver credit until students demonstrate that understanding. It shouldn’t matter whether a student can master a year’s worth of content in two months or two years, or even whether a student comes to class. (Some of the most proficient students I taught rarely came to class; they already knew the material. Under strict policy, they would fail.) Who cares about a student’s attendance record if he or she is prepared to succeed at the next level?
Thanks to Ballou, DCPS knows it needs to evolve. Will D.C.’s next chancellor double down on shortsighted attendance policies that punish vulnerable students and continue to force unprepared students through a failing system? Or will DCPS leaders harness the immense potential of its dedicated, hard-working staff and its brilliant students and design competency-based structures that allow both to succeed?
The pressures created by numbers-driven administrators and the mistakes of its chancellor have been the story so far. They shouldn’t be. This is about our young people. What will DCPS and its next leader change for them?